Summer Beach Reads: Top Books on Fortified Wine
After this interminable, bone-chilling winter, has the approach of summer ever been so welcome? I’m guessing it’s pretty unanimous, at least on the East Coast, that we’re all eager to burn our parkas and head to the beach already. Now, what to read? With the growing popularity of fortified wines, a new crop of books has been published (some updated and reissued) on sherry, madeira and port. Whether you’ve been meaning to finally get your amontillados straight from your manzanillas or want some guidance on buying vintage ports these are the best reference books available. And, while you’re honing your fortified wine knowledge you might as well enjoy a glass of what you’re reading about. Here then are the best books on fortified wines along with recommended pours.
Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World’s Best-Kept Secret, with Cocktails and Recipes (2014) by Talia Baiocchi Ten Speed Press, $24.99
Even if you never read a word of Talia Baiocchi’s guide to sherry just perusing the gorgeous photos is likely to inspire a craving for a glass of fino if not trigger a sudden urge to check airfares to Spain. It’s an eye-catching book, a lovely little object d’art whose presence in anyone’s drinks library will signify its owner as very au courant on the wine scene. It is, however, also a book worth reading as it happens to be chock full of useful information about the different styles of sherry and how each is made. You can also read about the history, towns and bodegas, as well as find recipes for cocktails and a few southern Spanish dishes.
Baiocchi is the editor of the online drinks magazine PUNCH and writes from a personal vantage point with a fun, lively tone. My only quibble is with the cocktail section. I know all the mixologists are doing it these days, and she has enlisted the help of some of the best bartenders out there, but I confess that I’m a purist. Sherries are delicious wines in their own right, and it pains me to think of them mixed with rum or tequila among a myriad other things. It’s maybe not as cringe-worthy as mixing Coke and Chateau Latour, but close. Perhaps by integrating it into the current cocktail craze more sherry will be sold, but I don’t think it does sherry’s reputation any favors in the long run. That aside, this is a well-researched enjoyable book and well deserving of its nomination as a James Beard award finalist.
What to drink: Fino Inocente from Valdespino, $23.99 (750 ml); Barbadillo Manzanilla Solear En Rama Primavera, $15.99 (375 ml).
Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla: A guide to the traditional wines of Andalucia by Peter Liem & Jesús Barquín (2012) Manutius, $29.95
Ever wonder which strains of yeast make up the flor in biologically aged sherries? How about the calcium carbonate content of Jerez’s albariza soil? Then this is the book for you. Not all the information in this book is that technical, but the content is definitely targeted toward serious oenophiles, sommeliers and those in the trade. Published two years ago, this was the first new sherry book to come out in a decade and was received with universal praise and a sigh of relief “at last.” It’s a thorough and authoritative exploration of the history, wines, soils, and bodegas of the Jerez region. What the book lacks in color photos, it more than makes up for with in-depth information.
Although Peter Liem gained a following for his expertise on Champagne, he has been an extraordinary champion for sherry and is a co-founder of Sherryfest, an annual tasting event in New York, San Francisco and Toronto. His co-author, Jesús Barquín, is one of the principals of Equipo Navazos, a relatively new sherry label (basically a negoçiant that buys individually selected aged wines from bodegas), which has developed a cult-like following. Together they bring both a breadth and depth of knowledge to the subject. If you have a serious interest in sherry this is a must.
What to drink: Equipo Navazos La Bota de Amontillado #37, $67.97 (750 ml); Bodegas Tradicion Palo Cortado VORS, $99.95 (750 ml).
Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine (2014) By Alex Liddell Hurst & Company, $29.95
Hard on the heels of the recent sherry renaissance comes the revival of yet another fortified wine that also spent decades languishing in the back of liquor cabinets everywhere: madeira. As with sherry, up-to-date publications have lagged behind the wine’s popularity and are therefore pretty scant. Thankfully, Alex Liddell has revised and reissued his thorough, authoritative book “Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine,” which was first published in 1998. Liddell began his career in academia and brings a scholarly approach to the subject. The result is a thorough, meticulously researched book.
The island of Madeira, situated in the Mid-Atlantic, provided the perfect stopping off point for ships sailing to North and South America, the Caribbean, Africa or points further east such as India and the Spice Islands. Madeira wine became a popular commodity. It was, in fact, the very act of shipping wines on long, hot journeys that created the style of Madeira wines as we know them today. Liddell not only tells this story wonderfully, he also delves into the soil, grapes, viticulture, vinification and the producers. There is enough basic information here to entice the amateur enthusiast but it also has the level of detail for professionals.
What to drink: Blandy’s 1998 Colheita Sercial, $54.99 500 ml.; Broadbent 10 year old Bual, $39.99, 500 ml.
Port and the Douro (2013) By Richard Mayson Infinite Ideas, $50
Whether or not you are a long-time port collector or struggle to discern an LBV from a colheita, Richard Mayson’s “Port and the Douro” is an indispensable guide to the region’s fortified wines. He’s been in the wine business for more than 30 years and written numerous books on port, madeira and the wines of Iberia as well as making his own wine in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. The last few decades have seen a lot of changes in the Douro and Mayson has been there chronicling every development. In this third edition we’re brought right up to 2011.
Mayson begins with the fascinating history of the region, which was originally settled by the Romans, and the beginnings of the Port trade, which flourished as a result of war between England and France. He provides a thorough description of the numerous grape varieties allowed in Port as well as the viticulture and vinification processes. He provides information on some of the major quintas and for those with a deep interest in vintage ports, he provides an invaluable account of vintages from 2011 back to 1844.
What to drink: 2008 Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage Port, $19.00, 750 ml; Quinta do Noval Black, $19.97, 750 ml.
An American In Jerez
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When Alex Russan was a young college student he had his first taste of sherry. In an instant, he was hooked. “It was the most complex thing I had ever tasted. The unique flavors really moved me.” In the following years, the California native worked as a coffee buyer and simply indulged his passion for sherry the way most of us do, by simply drinking a lot of it. As the sherry renaissance began to flourish, however, his entrepreneurial instincts kicked in, and he saw an opportunity to turn his passion for sherry into a business. The result is Alexander Jules, a line of limited production, barrel-selected sherries, which made their debut last fall.
Sherry business is an old business, dominated by big shippers who can often trace their lineage back to the early 18th century. Many of them have been British—Harveys Bristol Cream, Byass of González-Byass, Sandeman—but Russan is the first American to bottle Jerez sherries. One of the factors that makes this possible is the fragmented structure of the industry. Rarely do the producers, who age and bottle the wine, own their own vineyards. Most buy their base wine from growers or an already aged wine from an almacenista. Traditionally, the goal for many of the sherry houses has been to maintain consistency, which is accomplished through blending the different barrels in their soleras, which are themselves blends of vintages. Beginning in the 1980s, however, Lustau recognized a market for smaller, more artisanal sherries and began bottling wines from individual almacenistas and featuring their names on the label. More recently, Equipo Navazos entered the market with their La Bota series, sherries from selected barrels that they thought expressed unique character but weren’t being bottled and sold. Bodegas can have hundreds of barrels (González Byass is the largest with 80,000), but inevitably not all are commercialized. This is where Equipo Navazos, and now Alexander Jules, have stepped in.
Having honed his palate over the years with specialty coffee (there are many similarities with wine) and recognizing that the interest in sherry was only growing stronger, Russan took the leap and, in August of 2012, began contacting the Jezez bodegas. The owners were all open to his proposal. “I was pleased with how receptive people were.” During his first trip to the region he tasted through barrels at 15 bodegas. “Once I have a sense of the spectrum of variation in the solera, I have an idea of what I’d like to focus on or accentuate in that solera. I’ll search for the barrels I feel represent that and will work well together. I look for complexity, cleanliness, precision of flavor, depth and elegance.” A few thousand emails and calls later, he bottled his first wines in May 2013.
In the last few years sherries have been increasingly bottled en rama, which means with minimal or no clarification or filtering before being bottled. This keeps the wine’s inherent characteristics as intact as possible and adds to the complexity and body. It’s as close to tasting a sherry in barrel as possible. Although Russan’s sherries are not labeled as such they are minimally treated. “Before en rama bottlings were common, most Finos and Manzanillas seemed fairly lean, austere wines, however, tasting them from the barrel they are often weighty, lush wines.” These in-barrel qualities are what he seeks to preserve in bottle.
Having tracked down a bottle of the 6/26 Amontillado at Slope Cellars, a wine store in Brooklyn, I can say that the sherry delivers in spades. This particular wine comes from a 26 barrel solera from Bodega Argüeso in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a city on the Atlantic coast and the home turf of Manzanillas. The wine spent five years under flor followed by another five years aging oxidatively. Out of those 26 barrels Russan selected wine from 6 of them to be bottled, hence the 6/26. Per Russan’s instructions I sampled it over the course of four days. Initially this golden wine smelled of roasted almonds and camomille, a distinctive quality found in Manzanilla sherries. On the palate it was bone dry and crisp but with a soft, creaminess to the body. Flavors of mushrooms, raisins, baguettes, and brine went on a surprisingly long time. A day later the smell of butterscotch rose to the fore before receding the next day. By day 4 the butterscotch had been overtaken by scents of mapled walnuts and raisins. On the palate it remained crisply dry and creamy and tasted of camomille, almonds and olives. I did as the Spanish do and paired it with Iberico ham, Marcona almonds, and Manchego cheese.
In addition to the Alexander Jules 6/26 Amontillado, 500 ml, $40, Russan currently has two other sherries on offer: Alexander Jules Manzanilla 17/71, which comes from a nearly 200-year-old solera at the same bodega as the Amontillado and is bottled en rama, and Alexander Jules Fino 22 /85 from the Fino Celestino solera at Sanchez Romate in Jerez de la Frontera. These wines are aged an average of eight years and also bottled en rama.
His future plans include another release of the Manzanilla and Amontillado as well as a new Fino, but the real highlight, he says is an “old Oloroso from barrels that were untouched for about 40 years, after having been essentially lost.” These barrels were initially filled with about 500 liters (of already old wine). After 40 years there’s been significant ullage, leaving about about 200 liters. “A really intriguing, concentrated wine and a unique story.”
Suddenly sherry is cool again, and perhaps no one deserves more credit for restoring its reputation than Peter Liem, a wine writer known for his champagne expertise but more recently has taken up the cause of Sherry. Last year he and Jesús Barquín, founder of Equipo Navazos, published Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla, one of the most comprehensive books about sherry to hit U.S. bookstores in decades. It was while planning for the book’s launch party that Liem and Rosemary Gray hit on the idea for Sherryfest, a three-day event with dinners, seminars and a Grand Tasting. This year it featured 27 bodegas and more than 160 sherries.
A highlight for me was a masterclass on amontillado, a style of sherry in between a fino and oloroso. Presenting the wines was an all-star line up of producers from Barbadillo and Osborne, along with Beltran Domecq, whose family has been in the sherry business for generations and is the president of the Jerez DO regulatory board. He also just published his own book on sherry. Peter Liem and Carla Rzeszewski, former Wine Director of The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, and The John Dory Oyster Bar, poured the wines.
The most poignant aspect of this tasting was in seeing how these wines evolve as they age. Life for an amontillado begins as a fino or manzanilla (a fino aged in the township of Sanlucar de Barrameda near the sea). Finos are the lightest of all sherries and are made using the solera system of fractional blending. Newly made dry wine from the Palomino grape is mixed with wine from the previous vintage, which itself is mixed with older vintages, and so on. For finos this process can last from three to eight years, all the while aging under under a layer of flor. This blanket of yeast not only protects the wine from the oxygen but also interacts with it in a way that gives finos and manzanillas their distinctive citrus and toast flavors (not oxidative since it is protected from the air) as well as their refreshing zip (the yeast consume glycerol, which gives wine a fuller mouthfeel).
After a few years of aging some finos or manzanillas may lose their flor. Sometimes this happens naturally, but more often the producer will add a few degrees of alcohol to stop its growth. The sherry is then further aged in barrels where it ages oxidatively. Producers will age them anywhere from 8 to 40 or more years. The longer it spends in barrel the more concentrated the wine becomes. The sherry darkens in color and grows in complexity, developing aromas of toffee, nuts, dried fruits and orange peel to add to the yeast and citrus notes from its life under flor. In the Osborne Amontillado I even detected the scent of grapefruit. The wines may sometimes smell as if they are sweet, however, they remain completely dry.
This process was most clearly demonstrated with three sherries from Barbadillo: Manzanilla en Rama, Amontillado Principe and Amontillado VORS. Barbadillo is one the largest producers in Sanlucar with 17 bodegas housing more than 65,000 casks. Their main manzanilla, Solear, is aged for 7 years under flor. A small portion of this wine is then aged another year before being bottled straight from the barrel without filtering (the en rama part). This is their Manzanilla en Rama and is the wine that is used to make the Amontillado Principe, which is turn is aged to make the Amontillado VORS. Compared to other manzanillas the en rama has a more intense yeasty aroma and is a lot more complex with camomile, citrus and sea spray notes. To become the amontillado it will spend another eight years in barrel without its flor and exposed to a small amount of air. The result is a darker amber color and concentrated aromas of salted caramel, nuts and dried figs, with the underlying yeast and citrus notes still coming through. The aromas suggest that the wine may taste sweet, but it is bone dry. The ultimate expression of this wine is the Amontillado VORS, which is aged a total average of 40 years. Only about 300 bottles are made every year, and it is truly an exceptional wine: full bodied and rich but still lively and precise with notes of caramel and dates that lasted forever. Alongside my tasting note I simply wrote “delicious!”
The VOS and VORS wines are made is very small quantities and much more expensive but are a real treat. VOS stands for Vinum Optimum Signatum (or Very Old Sherry) and VORS for Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum (or Very Old Rare Sherry) and have been aged 20 years or more and 30 years or more respectively.
Easier to find and definitely more affordable is the Valdespino Tio Diego Amotillado. Valdespino is a top producer whose fino Inocente is also fantastic. Valdespino is one of the few producers who own their own vineyards. These two wines are made from grapes grown on the Macharnudo Alto vineyard, known for its pure albariza soil. Fermentation takes place in American oak barrels rather than stainless steel tanks, which is more common, and they use indigenous yeasts. The wines are extraordinarily complex and (I’m repeating myself) delicious.